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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the Alleged Obscurity of Mr. Browning’s Poetry
By Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)
 
From ‘Obiter Dicta’

IN considering whether a poet is intelligible and lucid, we ought not to grope and grub about his work in search of obscurities and oddities, but should, in the first instance at all events, attempt to regard his whole scope and range; to form some estimate, if we can, of his general purport and effect, asking ourselves for this purpose such questions as these:—How are we the better for him? Has he quickened any passion, lightened any burden, purified any taste? Does he play any real part in our lives? When we are in love, do we whisper him in our lady’s ear? When we sorrow, does he ease our pain? Can he calm the strife of mental conflict? Has he had anything to say which wasn’t twaddle on those subjects which, elude analysis as they may, and defy demonstration as they do, are yet alone of perennial interest—
  On man, on nature, and on human life,”
on the pathos of our situation, looking back on to the irrevocable and forward to the unknown? If a poet has said, or done, or been any of these things to an appreciable extent, to charge him with obscurity is both folly and ingratitude.
  1
  But the subject may be pursued further, and one may be called upon to investigate this charge with reference to particular books or poems. In Browning’s case this fairly may be done; and then another crop of questions arises, such as: What is the book about, i.e., with what subject does it deal, and what method of dealing does it employ? Is it didactical, analytical, or purely narrative? Is it content to describe, or does it aspire to explain? In common fairness these questions must be asked and answered, before we heave our critical half-bricks at strange poets. One task is of necessity more difficult than another. Students of geometry who have pushed their researches into that fascinating science so far as the fifth proposition of the first book, commonly called the ‘Pons Asinorum’ (though now that so many ladies read Euclid, it ought, in common justice to them, to be at least sometimes called the ‘Pons Asinarum’), will agree that though it may be more difficult to prove that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal, and that if the equal sides be produced, the angles on the other side of the base shall be equal, than it was to describe an equilateral triangle on a given finite straight line; yet no one but an ass would say that the fifth proposition was one whit less intelligible than the first. When we consider Mr. Browning in his later writings, it will be useful to bear this distinction in mind….  2
  Looking then at the first period, we find in its front eight plays:—  3
  1. ‘Strafford,’ written in 1836, when its author was twenty-four years old, and put upon the boards of Covent Garden Theatre on the 1st of May, 1837; Macready playing Strafford, and Miss Helen Faucit Lady Carlisle. It was received with much enthusiasm, but the company was rebellious and the manager bankrupt; and after running five nights, the man who played Pym threw up his part, and the theatre was closed.  4
  2. ‘Pippa Passes.’  5
  3. ‘King Victor and King Charles.’  6
  4. ‘The Return of the Druses.’  7
  5. ‘A Blot in the ’Scutcheon.’  8
  This beautiful and pathetic play was put on the stage of Drury Lane on the 11th of February, 1843, with Phelps as Lord Tresham, Miss Helen Faucit as Mildred Tresham, and Mrs. Stirling, still known to us all, as Guendolen. It was a brilliant success. Mr. Browning was in the stage-box; and if it is any satisfaction for a poet to hear a crowded house cry “Author, author!” that satisfaction has belonged to Mr. Browning. The play ran several nights; and was only stopped because one of Mr. Macready’s bankruptcies happened just then to intervene. It was afterwards revived by Mr. Phelps, during his “memorable management” of Sadlers’ Wells.  9
  6. ‘Colombe’s Birthday.’ Miss Helen Faucit put this upon the stage in 1852, when it was reckoned a success.  10
  7. ‘Luria.’  11
  8. ‘A Soul’s Tragedy.’  12
  To call any of these plays unintelligible is ridiculous; and nobody who has ever read them ever did, and why people who have not read them should abuse them is hard to see. Were society put upon its oath, we should be surprised to find how many people in high places have not read ‘All’s Well that Ends Well,’ or ‘Timon of Athens’; but they don’t go about saying these plays are unintelligible. Like wise folk, they pretend to have read them, and say nothing. In Browning’s case they are spared the hypocrisy. No one need pretend to have read ‘A Soul’s Tragedy’; and it seems, therefore, inexcusable for any one to assert that one of the plainest, most pointed and piquant bits of writing in the language is unintelligible. But surely something more may be truthfully said of these plays than that they are comprehensible. First of all, they are plays, and not works—like the dropsical dramas of Sir Henry Taylor and Mr. Swinburne. Some of them have stood the ordeal of actual representation; and though it would be absurd to pretend that they met with that overwhelming measure of success our critical age has reserved for such dramatists as the late Lord Lytton, the author of ‘Money,’ the late Tom Taylor, the author of ‘The Overland Route,’ the late Mr. Robertson, the author of ‘Caste,’ Mr. H. Byron, the author of ‘Our Boys,’ Mr. Wills, the author of ‘Charles I.,’ Mr. Burnand, the author of ‘The Colonel,’ and Mr. Gilbert, the author of so much that is great and glorious in our national drama; at all events they proved themselves able to arrest and retain the attention of very ordinary audiences. But who can deny dignity and even grandeur to ‘Luria,’ or withhold the meed of a melodious tear from ‘Mildred Tresham’? What action of what play is more happily conceived or better rendered than that of ‘Pippa Passes’?—where innocence and its reverse, tender love and violent passion, are presented with emphasis, and yet blended into a dramatic unity and a poetic perfection, entitling the author to the very first place amongst those dramatists of the century who have labored under the enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with.  13
  Passing from the plays, we are next attracted by a number of splendid poems, on whose base the structure of Mr. Browning’s fame perhaps rests most surely,—his dramatic pieces; poems which give utterance to the thoughts and feelings of persons other than himself, or as he puts it when dedicating a number of them to his wife:—
  Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead, or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth the speech—a poem;”
or again in ‘Sordello’:—
  “By making speak, myself kept out of view,
The very man as he was wont to do.”
  14
  At a rough calculation, there must be at least sixty of these pieces. Let me run over the names of a very few of them. ‘Saul,’ a poem beloved by all true women; ‘Caliban,’ which the men, not unnaturally perhaps, often prefer. The ‘Two Bishops’: the sixteenth-century one ordering his tomb of jasper and basalt in St. Praxed’s Church, and his nineteenth-century successor rolling out his post-prandial Apologia. ‘My Last Duchess,’ the ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister,’ ‘Andrea del Sarto,’ ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra,’ ‘Cleon,’ ‘A Death in the Desert,’ ‘The Italian in England,’ and ‘The Englishman in Italy.’  15
  It is plain truth to say that no other English poet, living or dead, Shakespeare excepted, has so heaped up human interest for his readers as has Robert Browning….  16
  Against these dramatic pieces the charge of unintelligibility fails as completely as it does against the plays. They are all perfectly intelligible; but—and here is the rub—they are not easy reading, like the estimable writings of the late Mrs. Hemans. They require the same honest attention as it is the fashion to give to a lecture of Professor Huxley’s or a sermon of Canon Liddon’s; and this is just what too many persons will not give to poetry. They
                  “Love to hear
A soft pulsation in their easy ear;
To turn the page, and let their senses drink
A lay that shall not trouble them to think.”
*        *        *        *        *
  17
  Next to these dramatic pieces come what we may be content to call simply poems: some lyrical, some narrative. The latter are straightforward enough, and as a rule full of spirit and humor; but this is more than can always be said of the lyrical pieces. Now, for the first time in dealing with this first period, excluding ‘Sordello,’ we strike difficulty. The Chinese puzzle comes in. We wonder whether it all turns on the punctuation. And the awkward thing for Mr. Browning’s reputation is this, that these bewildering poems are for the most part very short. We say awkward, for it is not more certain that Sarah Gamp liked her beer drawn mild than it is that your Englishman likes his poetry cut short; and so, accordingly, it often happens that some estimable paterfamilias takes up an odd volume of Browning his volatile son or moonstruck daughter has left lying about, pishes and pshaws! and then, with an air of much condescension and amazing candor, remarks that he will give the fellow another chance, and not condemn him unread. So saying, he opens the book, and carefully selects the very shortest poem he can find; and in a moment, without sign or signal, note or warning, the unhappy man is floundering up to his neck in lines like these, which are the third and final stanza of a poem called ‘Another Way of Love’:—
          “And after, for pastime,
          If June be refulgent
        With flowers in completeness,
            All petals, no prickles,
            Delicious as trickles
        Of wine poured at mass-time,
            And choose One indulgent
        To redness and sweetness;
Or if with experience of man and of spider,
She use my June lightning, the strong insect-ridder
To stop the fresh spinning,—why June will consider.”
  18
  He comes up gasping, and more than ever persuaded that Browning’s poetry is a mass of inconglomerate nonsense, which nobody understands—least of all members of the Browning Society.  19
  We need be at no pains to find a meaning for everything Mr. Browning has written. But when all is said and done—when these few freaks of a crowded brain are thrown overboard to the sharks of verbal criticism who feed on such things—Mr. Browning and his great poetical achievement remain behind to be dealt with and accounted for. We do not get rid of the Laureate by quoting:—
  “O darling room, my heart’s delight,
Dear room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white
There is no room so exquisite—
No little room so warm and bright
Wherein to read, wherein to write;”
or of Wordsworth by quoting:—
  “At this, my boy hung down his head:
He blushed with shame, nor made reply,
And five times to the child I said,
“‘Why, Edward? tell me why?’”
or of Keats by remembering that he once addressed a young lady as follows:—
  “O come, Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown:
The air is all softness and crystal the streams,
The west is resplendently clothèd in beams.”
  20
  The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part; but poets are to be judged in their happiest hours, and in their greatest works.  21
  The second period of Mr. Browning’s poetry demands a different line of argument; for it is, in my judgment, folly to deny that he has of late years written a great deal which makes very difficult reading indeed. No doubt you may meet people who tell you that they read ‘The Ring and the Book’ for the first time without much mental effort; but you will do well not to believe them. These poems are difficult—they cannot help being so. What is ‘The Ring and the Book’? A huge novel in twenty thousand lines—told after the method not of Scott but of Balzac; it tears the hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from ten different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and description: you are let off nothing. As with a schoolboy’s life at a large school, if he is to enjoy it at all, he must fling himself into it, and care intensely about everything—so the reader of ‘The Ring and the Book’ must be interested in everybody and everything, down to the fact that the eldest daughter of the counsel for the prosecution of Guido is eight years old on the very day he is writing his speech, and that he is going to have fried liver and parsley for his supper.  22
  If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the style, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the exception of the speeches of counsel, eloquent and at times superb; and as for the matter, if your interest in human nature is keen, curious, almost professional—if nothing man, woman, or child has been, done, or suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is without interest for you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not shrink from dissection—you will prize ‘The Ring and the Book’ as the surgeon prizes the last great contribution to comparative anatomy or pathology.  23
  But this sort of work tells upon style. Browning has, I think, fared better than some writers. To me, at all events, the step from ‘A Blot in the ’Scutcheon’ to ‘The Ring and the Book’ is not so marked as is the mauvais pas that lies between ‘Amos Barton’ and ‘Daniel Deronda.’ But difficulty is not obscurity. One task is more difficult than another. The angles at the base of the isosceles triangles are apt to get mixed, and to confuse us all—man and woman alike. ‘Prince Hohenstiel’ something or another is a very difficult poem, not only to pronounce but to read; but if a poet chooses as his subject Napoleon III.—in whom the cad, the coward, the idealist, and the sensualist were inextricably mixed—and purports to make him unbosom himself over a bottle of Gladstone claret in a tavern at Leicester Square, you cannot expect that the product should belong to the same class of poetry as Mr. Coventry Patmore’s admirable ‘Angel in the House.’  24
  It is the method that is difficult. Take the husband in ‘The Ring and the Book.’ Mr. Browning remorselessly hunts him down, tracks him to the last recesses of his mind, and there bids him stand and deliver. He describes love, not only broken but breaking; hate in its germ; doubt at its birth. These are difficult things to do either in poetry or prose, and people with easy, flowing Addisonian or Tennysonian styles cannot do them.  25
  I seem to overhear a still, small voice asking, But are they worth doing? or at all events, is it the province of art to do them? The question ought not to be asked. It is heretical, being contrary to the whole direction of the latter half of this century. The chains binding us to the rocks of realism are faster riveted every day; and the Perseus who is destined to cut them is, I expect, some mischievous little boy at a Board-school. But as the question has been asked, I will own that sometimes, even when deepest in works of this, the now orthodox school, I have been harassed by distressing doubts whether after all this enormous labor is not in vain; and wearied by the effort, overloaded by the detail, bewildered by the argument, and sickened by the pitiless dissection of character and motive, have been tempted to cry aloud, quoting—or rather, in the agony of the moment, misquoting—Coleridge:—
  “Simplicity—thou better name
Than all the family of Fame.”
  26
  But this ebullition of feeling is childish and even sinful. We must take our poets as we do our meals—as they are served up to us. Indeed, you may, if full of courage, give a cook notice, but not the time-spirit who makes our poets. We may be sure—to appropriate an idea of the late Sir James Stephen—that if Robert Browning had lived in the sixteenth century, he would not have written a poem like ‘The Ring and the Book’; and if Edmund Spenser had lived in the nineteenth century he would not have written a poem like the ‘Faerie Queene.’  27
  It is therefore idle to arraign Mr. Browning’s later method and style for possessing difficulties and intricacies which are inherent to it. The method at all events has an interest of its own, a strength of its own, a grandeur of its own. If you do not like it you must leave it alone. You are fond, you say, of romantic poetry; well, then, take down your Spenser and qualify yourself to join “the small transfigured band” of those who are able to take their Bible-oaths they have read their ‘Faerie Queene’ all through. The company, though small, is delightful, and you will have plenty to talk about without abusing Browning, who probably knows his Spenser better than you do. Realism will not for ever dominate the world of letters and art—the fashion of all things passeth away—but it has already earned a great place: it has written books, composed poems, painted pictures, all stamped with that “greatness” which, despite fluctuations, nay, even reversals of taste and opinion, means immortality.  28
  But against Mr. Browning’s later poems it is sometimes alleged that their meaning is obscure because their grammar is bad. A cynic was once heard to observe with reference to that noble poem ‘The Grammarian’s Funeral,’ that it was a pity the talented author had ever since allowed himself to remain under the delusion that he had not only buried the grammarian, but his grammar also. It is doubtless true that Mr. Browning has some provoking ways, and is something too much of a verbal acrobat. Also, as his witty parodist, the pet poet of six generations of Cambridge undergraduates, reminds us:—
  He loves to dock the smaller parts of speech,
As we curtail the already cur-tailed cur.”
It is perhaps permissible to weary a little of his i’s and o’s, but we believe we cannot be corrected when we say that Browning is a poet whose grammar will bear scholastic investigation better than that of most of Apollo’s children.
  29
  A word about ‘Sordello.’ One half of ‘Sordello,’ and that, with Mr. Browning’s usual ill-luck, the first half, is undoubtedly obscure. It is as difficult to read as ‘Endymion’ or the ‘Revolt of Islam,’ and for the same reason—the author’s lack of experience in the art of composition. We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to put a staircase in his house, which contained fine rooms, but no way of getting into them. ‘Sordello’ is a poem without a staircase. The author, still in his twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject—
              “He singled out
Sordello compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years.’”
He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has never ceased girding at him because forty-two years ago he published at his own charges a little book of two hundred and fifty pages, which even such of them as were then able to read could not understand.
  30
 
 
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